The “Sold” sign went up at The Boleyn Ground yesterday, a point of no return in West Ham United’s enduringly controversial plans to leave The Boleyn Ground, the club’s home for the last one hundred and ten years, for the newer pastures of the Olympic Stadium in nearby Stratford. Yet whilst this was an announcement that was expected by most, there has been a solemn atmosphere amongst the club’s supporters over the last couple of days or so, and the feeling that, of all the people that are likely to benefit the most as a result of this move, they are perhaps not are not as high a priority as they should be continues to linger. There is still, it rather feels, a sense of unease over this move.
There is probably a lengthy book to be written on the subject of how West Ham United came to be moving to the Olympic Stadium, and there isn’t enough space to go into it all in great detail here. Having first been announced that West Ham would be the anchor tenants for the new stadium in February 2011, the board of the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) has ended negotiations the following October amid concerns over delays caused by legal disputes on the subject. This, however, was a story that refused to die and in March of last year the move was back on after after the government agreed to put an extra £25m towards the costs of converting the stadium for football use (taking their total spend on it to £60m), with the club itself agreeing to increase its contribution towards it from £10m to £15m.
Still, though, the legal challenges kept coming and in September of last year Leyton Orient’s Barry Hearn failed in an attempt to force a judicial review of the tender process that saw West Ham end up as its tenants. At a hearing at the High Court in London, presiding judge Mr Justice Lewis stated that the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC was) entitled to make the decision, which he could not consider to be “irrational.” Hearn may well be as self-serving as anybody involved in this story – and it is worth reminding ourselves of the fact that there were never many Orient supporters that wanted to leave Brisbane Road and share the Olympic Stadium, as Hearn did – but there remain valid questions to be asked over whether a big business Premier League football club securing the use of the stadium for a downpayment of £15m and a subsequent annual rent of £2m plus a share of commercial revenues is sufficient, considering the subsidy that the club is receiving for such a facility and the potential benefits that some might earn from all of this.
While the details of what will be built on the former Boleyn Ground site – 700 apartments and a memorial garden to be named after Bobby Moore – have been made public fairly quickly, information regarding exactly what experience might await West Ham supporters at their new home once they get there remains somewhat more elusive. Suspicion was aroused among some supporters following the release of a poll in May which stated with confidence the move was been backed by 85% of bond and season ticket holders, academy members and match-day ticket holders, a figure which some considered completely out of step with their experience of how supporters felt on the subject.
At that time, vice-chair Karren Brady – who commissioned that poll and, in completely unrelated news, it was confirmed in the club’s accounts for the previous financial year, was paid £1.634m, an increase of more than £1.2m on the previous 12 month – stated that “We must now engage further with the fans who’ve requested more information,” but nine months on from that bold statement it doesn’t appear that a great deal of detail – artistic wide-screen mock-ups which talk a lot without saying very much notwithstanding, of course – has been made available to supporters, many of whom are concerned about a loss of atmosphere, the potential for empty seats at a stadium that will have a capacity of many thousands more than the club’s record attendancem and whether thes best seats in the house might end up in corporate hands rather than those of ordinary fans.
Ultimately, though (and this is regardless of anybody’s opinions on the rights or wrongs of leaving the Boleyn Ground for the Olympic Stadium), any sadness that West Ham supporters feel this week as a result of the news of the sale of their traditional home is a result of emotions that have little to do with sight-lines, ticket prices or judicial reviews. It’s about leaving home, about knowing that at a point in the future that will arrive more quickly than most probably feel as if it will, things will never be the same again. The Boleyn Ground, as with many – if not most – other grounds in English football, is already very different to that of the childhoods of the middle-aged amongst them. But the continuity of the culture of the football has been dramatically left behind over the last two decades in the pursuit of something new. Yet even following extensive rebuilding, one stand remained as a reminder of the past, and the idea that the ghosts of the greats of the past still wander the corridors, deep in the bowels of the stadium, can be a comforting one to cling to when things aren’t going so brilliantly on the pitch.
This evening, though, West Ham United are up to tenth place in the Premier League, and following on from their win at Aston Villa at the weekend, there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel for supporters who have endured a difficult season so far. Perhaps this will leave them a little more sanguine at the prospect of leaving home and stepping into the unknown, but doubts will remain with some – if not many – over the wisdom of this decision, especially considering that West Ham United are going from owning their own property to renting instead. This move could be a huge success for the club. It could turn out to be a failure. All that any West Ham supporters know at the moment is that no matter what happens, there is now no turning back for their club.
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